The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle and recover” summarizes the idea behind the circular economy. Collaboration between companies or sectors aimed at symbiosis – where waste or waste by-products become a resource for something else – is central to business models that help build a circular economy. But despite technical and institutional progress towards circularity, knowledge, market and policy gaps remain.
The workshop gathered innovators, public authorities, and researchers in wastewater treatment and agriculture to discuss how to fill these gaps and transition to more circular and symbiotic systems.
Below are some highlights from the panel session.
Successful examples of symbiotic and circular initiatives
Principles of industrial symbiosis and circularity are difficult to apply due to a general lack of local know-how. But there are success stories and a range of promising symbiotic initiatives in the pipeline.
Palopuro Agroecological Symbiosis in Finland and Kalundborg Symbiosis in Denmark are initiatives that demonstrate that it is possible to achieve symbiosis through a circular approach among stakeholders.
Palopuro Agroecological Symbiosis is a project based at the University of Helsinki working at a farm in Hyvinkää. The farm is the centre of a cooperative food production system based on energy and nutrient self-sufficiency. This multi-enterprise network aims to produce local, organic food using bioenergy and recycled nutrients, and also to serve as a model for organic food production and processing which is truly energy and nutrient self-sufficient. Kari Koppelmäki, the project coordinator, said there is always potential to introduce new technologies, but financial strain and lack of available markets are major challenges. There are plenty of available resources on farms which are underused, he explained, and it should therefore be easier to put these to work for environmental and economic benefits. However, Koppelmäki added that “balancing supply and demand is difficult when production is at a small scale, as one needs to recover phosphorus of the same quality as that on the market to be able to sell the product”.
Kalundborg municipality works with circular production of sludge, treating wastewater from homes and companies and delivering nutrient-rich sludge to farmers for use as fertilizer. Kalundborg Symbiosis – a partnership between nine public bodies and private companies – is the world’s first example of industrial symbiosis and has been running for more than 50 years. David Marhauer-Nimb, project leader at Kalundborg Symbiosis, explained that although the partnership evolved organically, its success is down to business agreements that are preceded by financial feasibility assessments, as well as analysis of mutual benefit among partners. Legislation can also support symbiotic models and help build bridges between innovation and markets. This underscores the importance of public procurement for fostering sustainable innovations.
In the parallel sessions the issue of public procurement was a key topic of discussion. Public procurement constitutes a major share of public spending and is increasingly recognized as an untapped potential for driving a transition towards a circular economy. Countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have new national policies in place to support circular procurement, and successful experiences are starting to emerge in the Baltic Sea region.
However, participants highlighted that challenges remain in implementing circular procurement in the agriculture and wastewater sectors. These included a lack of knowledge at local levels on the different types of procurement, and how these should be applied at the different stages of an innovation. For example, innovation procurement is not the same as sustainable innovation procurement. The former focuses on innovations that are not yet out in the market, while the latter is a “normal” type of procurement for existing products and services but with additional social and environmental criteria. Understanding the different types of procurement and improving their consistent use is crucial for testing innovations locally.
Avoiding the valley of death
According to participants the biggest problem for innovators is surviving the so-called “valley of death” between innovation and market adoption, even when technical readiness is in place.